The accounts that follow – broadcast on RTE’s Seascapes – were introduced by Tom McSweeney, the presenter and producer, as being from my Island Notebook. Here’s hoping you’ve some pleasure within – and maybe some memories reawakened! Chuck

 

 

The Journey ‘In’

(i.m. of Concubhar O’Driscoll)

Broadcast by Seascapes 30.3.07

 

As we start our journey ‘in’ to Oileán Cléire, our monthly ‘messages’ wedged between rows of wooden seats in the safe saloon, Captain Concubhar O’Driscoll revs the engines as he studies dials and sea – and I watch sooty black smoke pour out of the stack and water aft turn turbulent. The crew completes the cast off: Ted pulls the tire fenders up, coils the ropes; Sean helps an arthritic straggler down the narrow concrete steps and, closing the starboard side-door, throws two half-hitches about the bolt, twangs the strap around an aromatic cattle trailer on the stern deck to double-check it’s snug and won’t roll no matter heavy seas. Fachtna flicks the right-on salute to the skipper and we’re reversing out around the head of the Baltimore pier.

Leaning against the taffrail, relieved my mainland duties are done, and just in the nick of time, with barely breath after finally finding a place to squeeze in our car on the crowded streets of Baltimore, I’m homeward bound, feel myself relax as the village of Dún na Séad – framed in the middle of our wake – recedes into hill after hill of houseless landscape. I become oddly aware that I’m focused on the lifeboat station standing four-square and all by itself, its tongue of a slipway testing the waters, the Hilda Jarrett at the ready within, her beeper-connected volunteers four to eight minutes away from rescue launch, four to eight minutes away from a journey any time to who knows where for who knows what in what conditions. So long, I call out silently to Baltimore. And Rath’s coastal hilltop tower becomes a Napoleonic silhouette that for the next half mile presides over my affairs.

Ten minutes later, the white Baltimore Beacon (also called Lot’s Wife) out of sight, just as we’re nosing past the perilous Catalogues islands – with hungry rocks so close on either side I believe I could touch them with a gaff – I crane my neck, and there she is, Insula Sancta Clare. I catch glimpse after glimpse of the Cape four to five miles off, watch her rise and fall from end to end. And blow-in me knows that I’ve lived there for more than years, that I’m beholding something altogether antidote yet opposite to every place I’ve ever dwelt.

On this, the slightly longer twisty northern route, the vista west opens wide, the swell begins to declare itself, to define its fetch, to lift us tiptoe wavering up and up and stomach-dropping swooping down, neither landlubber nor local stays steady today without hanging on. For the safety of us, though not essential for the ship, the skipper slows, takes rearing wave head on, and swirling spray makes the half-dozen brave to brazen souls on the stern deck hunker down under overhang of wheelhouse deck. Squinting, drenched, and of the brazen class, I have to hop a wash of water from a port side drain before I mount the wheelhouse steps.

Once up, I open and shut the narrow door, stand dripping amongst the crew, an island lad, the visiting weekend priest, and I peer through the wheelhouse windows, cleaned now and then of clouds of salty spray by a single blade. Clinging to a steel screw-down window knob, I concentrate on what’s straight ahead amidst the chat and craic, am reminded of a peaceful sleepy turtle, evaluate the hump of Cape as a carapace with the easternmost townland of Comalán the head. As we draw nearer still, Oileán Éinne straight ahead – on its ridge a line of stationary cormorants drying their wings after diving deep – healthy but not mountainous waves rising royally and thundering down on the Bullig, on the Lough, I watch old turtle’s shell – all but blue from above Baltimore – turn green, begin to reveal itself.

As I stare at Oileán Chléire, squares, rectangles, pentagons and some all but shapeless patches change into three-dimensional pastures and fields and everywhere ahead I sense the simple heritage of drystone walls, feel their will to wait.

As we at last turn broadside to the swells, slow beside the Stacks to harbour speed, and enter North Harbour purring, the lads collect the fares, toss fenders out, prepare mooring ropes, untie the side-door bolt, swap wit and pleasantries. Islanders wait in little groups on Sean Duffy’s pier, wave to family and friends, approach the top of landing steps, and, if necessary, loop the tossed ropes around the bollards, all as the Naomh Ciarán snuggles up to her berth, settles in secure, done for the day (unless the resident island nurse requires a run for some emergency).

We disembark quickly so that we’re not stuck in the saloon for safety’s sake while the cattle trailer’s hoisted off. On the pier bangers and tractors inch through tight spaces, rearview mirrors sometimes scratch or snap and neighbours laugh and wave you on. We’re home.

 

Something To Be Said for Sailing             
for Bernie Cahill & the Baltimore Lifeboat
Broadcast in 2007/2008

 

Something to be said for sailing without wind,

just to be floating here, swell rocked, taking in

reflected scenery, the shapes behind Schull,

Mount Gabriel, Seefin, Maulin, Hungry Hill,

nothing doing but dozing off, dropping the slack sheet’s

tightly whipped and knotted end into the drink

to check for motion, feathering mackerel, pollack, ling.

 

Something to be said for sailing when the breeze picks up.

There, to the west, toward the faint blue Mizen,

Brow Head’s blacker blue, a glinty darkening on the water,

and there, another, and before the cat’s-paw’s scooting green

touches us the sails anticipate, give welcome tug, slack ropes

spring alive, slack stays strain, our old sloop groans from stem

to stern, heaves, the confident sound of water rushing by begins.

 

White bow slicing through dividing seas.

Behind transom swirls become following wake.

Another cat’s-paw hits, heels us over hard, snapping telltales

stream horizontal, leftover lunch tumbles to floorboards,

skids scupperwards. I brace feet against lee coaming,

grip tiller. A touch of a weather helm, I pay out mainsheet,

pull in. Almost. “Trim the jib that touch, Nell. There.”

 

Keel, hull, gaff, topping lift, us, we’re all hunky-dory, one,

humming along. I cannot believe how clean I feel,

scrubbed within an inch, and lean my back back, point up

a few degrees, hold her steady as quickening wind

knocks us over to the gunwale. Seas wet boom end.

I glimpse barnacled powering keel. We’ll round the Fastnet

soon, be back on Cape by 5:00. We’re riding high

 

right on the smack-dab edge of the world.

Something to be said for sailing. “Hard a-lee!”

 

 

The Oldest Working Harbour in the World

Broadcast by Seascapes in 2007

 

In 1995, on my first visit to what is believed to be the oldest continuously working harbour in the world, a harbour that’s been busy for over four thousand years, I walked out onto one of the piers and gazed at the vast variety of vessels birthed there, or anchored nearby, everything from little fishing boats and small yachts to sizeable trawlers to vast container ships and an Israeli navy cruiser, an exciting hodge-podge of commercial craft, pleasure boats, military mammoths. And then I caught myself staring past the lighthouse and on outside the mouth of Jaffa’s harbour to a collection of obviously dangerous low jagged rocks right on the southwestern fringe of the entrance.

I soon learned that ancient Greek myth alleges that Andromeda, touted by her hubristic mother Cassiopeia as the other most beautiful woman in the world, was chained to these very rocks and while awaiting her death by a marine monster, was spotted by love-at-first-sight Perseus, who then slew the monster before it reached Andromeda. Perseus unchained her from the rocks – which are still known as Andromeda’s Rock – married her, and took her back to his Grecian home.

When I next looked back and up at the ancient but glistening white city of Jaffa, now all but a suburb of the brand-new twentieth-century city of Tel-Aviv, biblical history began to inundate me. The very name Jaffa, which may derive from the Hebrew word for beauty, may also derive from Noah’s son, Japhet, who is credited with founding the original Jaffa soon after the great Flood had receded. Also it was here in Jaffa Harbour that the immense and numerous Lebanese cedars for King Solomon’s Temple were landed and carried by thousands of workers all the way to Jerusalem. The temple, I might add, was so ginormous and ornate that it takes two entire chapters in the Bible’s Second Book of Chronicles to describe it.

A little later in the Old Testament, in a book just a touch longer than the description of Solomon’s temple, Jonah, while starting his great flight to try to escape from the Lord’s bidding, climbed aboard a ship in Joppa (now know as Jaffa), paid his fare, and began his journey to Tarshish (probably what today we’d call southern Spain). The storm that so quickly rocked the ship finally caused Jonah, the cause of the storm, to be thrown overboard, which resulted in his spending three days and three nights changing his ways while praying in the belly of a whale.

In 2007 I visited Jaffa for my second time, this trip with Nell. From a spacious public garden high in the city we looked north, over the sandy beaches to Tel-Aviv and all its sparkling crowd of skyscrapers. We then prowled ancient archaeological ruins before wandering the narrow cobblestone alleyways and old stone houses that make up Jaffa’s thriving bartering multi-cultural Flea Market. And then, out a museum window, I found myself looking down on the harbour once again and pointing out to Nell Andromeda’s Rock. For centuries, I now realized, pilgrims passed that rock before arriving in the Holy Land; for centuries that harbour was Palestine’s primary port. The Crusaders landed there. And Richard the Lionheart. And Napoleon, to name but a few of the high and mighties. And thanks to that 4,000-year-old harbour, Jaffa is classified as one of the oldest cities in the world, though I don’t wish to blow too many trumpets, as inland Jericho, only about 70 kilometers away as the crow flies, was a walled settlement 10,000 years ago and is ranked as the world’s oldest town. But what’s a few thousand years between friends?

 

 

Teapot Tempest

Broadcast 07/08

 

Cursory early morning glance

southwest out island bedroom window tells

wind direction, size of swell,

whether it’s a day for in or out,

when shalom

shazam all I see this morning’s

ship, three flowering masts,

plunging bowsprit, triangles & squares,

heavy press of Prospero’s gull-white sails,

& I wonder where I am,

& when, & as the brave scene

begins to dawn in Miranda me, I dash downstairs

for camera, back up, snap, whir, snap,

before she rounds the point

& disappears into the Renaissance

or I wake up again alone as Caliban

and see wood pigeons

have unearthed the shoots of corn.

 

Why I need such black & white

confirmation of what is

I don’t rightly know but mull,

& in the routine pre-breakfast wake-up rinse

someone from somewhere murmurs simply that

a plant denied water dies –

& so do we

without surprise.

 

 

 “FASTNET, FORCE 10”

Broadcast by Seascapes in 2002

 

Early August 1999, with the wind increasing, the barometer dropping, and a frequent visitor to Cape Clear Island giving me an invitation to sail around the Fastnet Lighthouse the next day, I had all the excuse I needed to plunge into accounts of the Fastnet Race of 1979, in which 15 sailors drowned and 24 yachts were abandoned, of which 5 sank.

Of the fifty-eight Classification V entrants, the smallest of six categories, only 1 yacht finished. Three hundred and three boats from twenty-two countries started the race, 85 crossed the finish line 605 as-the-gannet-flies miles later. Meanwhile, thirteen RNLI Lifeboats from along the south coasts of Ireland and England became active in rescue missions, as well as eight military vessels, a number of commercial ships, a fleet of helicopters. The rescue operation was ranked as the largest in British waters since the evacuation of 340,000 from Dunkirk in 1940.

On Monday, 13 August, 1979, the BBC 1:55 PM key shipping bulletin for the Fastnet region reported simply: “south-westerly, force 4 or 5, increasing 6 or 7 for a time, veering westerly later. Occasional rain or showers.”

Kieran Cotter, present coxswain of the Baltimore Lifeboat, recalls that, while out by chance on a practice run that Monday night, around 8:00 PM he received a call reporting that the Race’s press boat might be in trouble. When it turned out that the ship was safe, had put in to Schull, he and the crew took a break on the way home and visited Cape Clear for some R&R. But about 10:30 came the call that the yacht Regardless had snapped her rudder. Off steamed the Baltimore Lifeboat. The seas, Kieran remembers, became increasingly heavy, making it hard to distinguish one yacht from another. Eventually they located Regardless, a little after midnight, but while towing her to Baltimore the rope snapped. Four times. Not until 8:00 AM did they have her safely in port.

Richard Bushe of Baltimore, in charge of this rescue operation, remembers the whole thing a scare, boats going down all over the place. From the mainland, Richard organised ambulances, arranged for dry clothes. And the Baltimore Lifeboat members and friends aided survivors for 36 hours straight.

During Cape Clear Island’s Lifeboat Day in 1996, Hugh Coveney, Minister of State and special guest of honour, told the story of how his racing yacht, Golden Apple of the Sun, with a crew that included three-time Olympic yachting medallist Rodney Pattison, and Ron Holland, a famous boat designer and the designer of Hugh’s boat too, had to be rescued during the 1979 race when his rudder snapped in the mammoth waves. The crew jury-rigged a spinnaker pole as an emergency tiller, but it promptly broke. His boat then began to roll violently. With ten men, some lying on top of others, squeezed onto the life raft, and the life raft unable to move away from the vicinity of the precariously rolling yacht, they waited prayerfully as a helicopter lifted them off one by one to safety.

Altogether twenty-seven hundred men and women sailed in this event. Over 77 skippers reported having their yachts capsize. Vessels were not only rolling 360 degrees, some world-class yachts were “pitchpoling”, flipping end over end.

Helicopters rescued 136 people, and another 70 were towed or accompanied to safety by the RNLI.

As a sailor in the Fastnet Race of 1979, and also the author of “Fastnet, Force 10”, John Rousmaniere wrote, with the Monday afternoon BBC forecast in mind, that, “Force 10 is to force 8 what stomach cancer is to gallstones.”

Oh, I nearly forgot: My brief sailing trip around the Fastnet in August of 1999 passed without incident – except for a herd of Bottlenose Dolphins leaping around us.

Digging

Broadcast in 2005

 

Turning village corner, I happen upon a harbour:

fifty craft at anchor – punts, dinghies, yachts;

half a dozen trawlers snug against the pier,

two old souls rotting in each others’ arms,

all faintly familiar in the solstice dusk,

though I’ve never been in Skerries before.

 

As I stroll to the head of the L-shaped pier,

I spot three seals cavorting, slowly figure out

why they’ve gathered: aboard a blue trawler,

the Ard-Mhuire, five men work the port side,

five teenage boys the starboard,

while a lone lad shovels clear a path between.

 

I watch him push into a pulsing ton of pink

heaped mid-ship and heave prawn

onto tables either side. His colleagues sort,

kibitz, and when they toss something not so squirmy

overboard, the seals playfully submerge.

 

Half an hour later, I’m still watching from the dark

as the lad plows through the pile of flood-lit prawn.

 

The heap becomes a drift of snow

from my youth that’s just slid off the roof

of my parents’ upstate New York home and blocks

the drive. As the lad pushes in the shovel, steps

hard, stomps, flings another hundred prawn

onto table, I’m clearing my parents’ drive

so dad can go to work tomorrow.

 

I wonder if I’ll ever finish digging –

and as I leave the pier, I snack upon my memory

the way the seals chow down the throwaways.

 

 

 

Breaching Dolphins

Broadcast in 2007

 

After almost twenty years of living on Cape Clear, and half-a-dozen visits a day to a knoll on the edge of our kitchen garden, I see something I’ve never seen before: a dolphin leaping high into the air, arcing over backwards, splashing rambunctiously into the sea. Almost immediately, some twenty feet from that spot, another dolphin breaches, this one twisting and fully rolling around before re-entering his element. Another two leap side by side. After several minutes I estimate that this herd, or pod, consists of about eight common dolphins, and that they’re all bursting with energy and playfulness as they soar into the air, backwards, forwards, straight up, sideways, every leap different from every other leap.

In all my years of prowling the natural wonders of this world, I witness the most frolicking, lyric bunch of mammals I’ve yet encountered. But after about two minutes of this delight, I break out of the spell that has bound me, run for Nell and together we hustle back to Look-out Point. They’re there, a mere ten feet out from the far shore, still frolicking about as they begin to make their way south. We ooh, we aah, we quickly point this way and that toward yet another breach exploding before our eyes. Hands instinctively cover gaping mouths.

When they’re some four to five hundred yards from us, they slowly, sportively dance out of sight around the point where the inner harbour ends and the much wider outer harbour begins. We can only assume they’re headed toward the far mouth of the harbour and then on toward the Fastnet Lighthouse to put on a show for the resident seals.

****

Fastnet Conversion

Broadcast in 2007

 

Out fishing past the Fastnet

I glance to starboard where,

below the cumulonimbus,

framed between

the Lighthouse and me –

with diminished Cape

four miles East –

sails such sudden purity of yacht

seascape turns into painting,

me into peace,

and a Galway hooker

into a red-sailed hint

of the worth of being on board.

****

 

Below Sea Level

Broadcast by Seascapes 14.4.08

 

As we descended from the red and brown and sparkling grey hills and mountains of the Negev Desert, dotted infrequently by small Bedouin settlements, we saw before us, for the first time in our lives, the Dead Sea, the world’s lowest point at over 400 metres below sea level. Not a breath of wind. The saltiest of waters reflected mesmerizingly the cloud-capped Jordanian mountains along the entire eastern shore.

But something about the size of this shimmering mirror of Dead Sea also perplexed me. It looked, to naïve me, like a small lake, albeit a stunning one, for which I had not been prepared, although I grew up beside one. And then I learned that what had once been a lake 320 kilometers long was now only 65 kilometers long, and now on average about 15 kilometers wide – and shrinking. With no outlet, a high evaporation rate, and about 5 centimeters of rain a year in the region, the shallow non-reflective southern end or basin of the Dead Sea appeared more like flooded farmland, with what looked like miniature hedgerows and fences cutting it up into all kinds of rectangles. The whole area, in fact, is exploited for its mineral wealth, especially its potash, industrial and table salts, bromine, and magnesium chloride.

As we drove north beside the western shoreline, with the now much deeper Sea of Salt (its name directly translated from Hebrew) only a hundred meters to our right, we also looked up into the Israeli mountains rising abruptly on our left. The sun was glistening on their isolated flat grey striated peaks. Between the peaks, some of them resembling gigantic sphinxes, and back from our road, stretched canyons, often several kilometers deep, and the inviting yet scary black mouths of many caves. And not a sign of life. No birds, no livestock, not a farm, not a house, or at least not most of the time.

Halfway up the coast we came upon a small shoreline village consisting mostly of utterly empty but architecturally striking hotels. We stopped to picnic in a park across the street from them right beside the quiet waters. Although it was too cold on this January day for this old geezer to go swimming, I placed my hands in the water, couldn’t believe how slippery smooth they felt when I pulled them out and rubbed them together. It was as if they’d been oiled. Then I licked a spot. My tongue felt bitterly stung for about a minute. No wonder the guide books say that you shouldn’t have recently shaved or have any cuts or grazes before taking a swim. And you’re advised not to open your eyes underwater. When a brave youthful group near us went swimming, amidst their laughing screams I noticed that they couldn’t sink.

After lunch we continued driving north until we reached the end of the still quietly yet unforgettably reflective Dead Sea. At that point I realised that on the entire lake we had seen only one small boat, a military vessel simply cruising the waters as a presence. No fishermen, not only because of the political pressure between Jordan and Israel, but because the water’s so salty – about 30% salt compared to the Atlantic Ocean’s 4% – that there’s not a fish in the entire Dead Sea

As we drove off and up not toward Jericho but Jerusalem, I had to look back again and again at what also was once known as the Sea of Lot, and, back in Byzantine times, as the Sea of the Devil. It had me in its grip.

 

Day-old Foal

Broadcast in 2007

 

Day-old foal

fills island field,

reminds me of

the way

rays of sun

puddle plots

of sea:

lissome lyric legs

reach out, stretch,

frolic

without goal,

the soul

dancing.

****

 

Tail-end of Hurricane Sets A Record

Broadcast 1.2002

 

On October third, 2000, the tail-end of Hurricane Isaac swept over Ireland’s southernmost island, winds gusting seventy mph. I know, because, out for a walk and a vibrating peek at waves mountainous, wind-gauge me was flattened beside a rabbit track on top of a headland. This wind brooked no light-weights, no amateurs.

The next morning, skies clearing, sea spit clouding every windowpane, a visiting professional peered about Cape’s waist, a highly protected miniature valley, and hoped, though for what he knew not. Something off course. Something from way west.

A little after nine he saw a flick of loud yellow. Praying that Isaac might’ve dropped off an accidental hitchhiker from North America, the man does a double-take, sees something never before recorded in Europe. Yes, he’s happened upon an occasionally sulky but definitely perky Blue-winged Warbler.

Pagers about Europe shake with MEGA ALERTS advising of the rarity’s whereabouts.

Suddenly, after an hour’s wait, I spot him, a blur of yellow. It’s as though the entire group of bird watchers has been given a shot of adrenaline. The crowd swells. We hear the ferry return from an extra run, see a dozen birders leap off, race the length of the pier, sprint up the hill. They join us, pods hitting the ground, scopes focused by panting creatures who might just be that second too late. But aren’t.

600-plus birders from all over Europe visited Cape over the next four days – and all saw the blue-winged warbler. Truly ’tis an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. Thanks, Hurricane Isaac.

*****

 

Cow

 

On the lane to the island post office what

slows me down and finally stops me on the verge

but a single cow ambling along

with her head stuck through a gate

 

The gate spreads the width of the lane

and cow keeps sauntering along lackadaisical

 

By the time I’ve undone my knapsack

watched two spilled white letters flutter

out the passenger door into pancake flop

retrieved and wiped them on my jeans

and only then mounted my awkward zoom

why she’s disappeared around a bend

and by the time I’ve reached the bend

coming at me looms a herd of twenty cattle

escaped from a stick-wielding disgruntled ambling sentry

once stationed by the post office drive

 

Now I understand: they’ve been forced out

     of their usual haunts and channeled toward the cattle crush

because today’s the Tuesday

the mainland vet checks for tuberculosis

 

In the ditch beside the road around the bend

lies the rusty gate, and now, returning en masse,

my whichever cow must mosey incognito past

 

I’ve lost my shot of shots

but cannot doubt on days like this

an islandwide sense of incongruity

I cannot for the life of me dismiss:

I wonder if I don’t wear a rusty gate around my neck

for the delight of some other kind of gawking creature

   ****

 

A Story is like the Wind

Broadcast in 2002

 

The first Sunday in September of 1998 I remember thanks to the tail-end of Hurricane Danielle. Emceeing the grand finale of the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival, I happen to look past the storyteller and the crowd to the ferry boat captain outside signaling me with urgency. So after thanking the teller and asking the crowd to be re-seated for the second half in exactly twenty minutes, I hustle to where the captain stands.

There’ll be no more ferries leaving Cape today day. The seas have grown desperate. The hurricane has this very afternoon hit the Fastnet Lighthouse, just four miles further out to sea than Cape, with three waves exploding over the top of the 183-foot tower.

So, when the crowd re-assembles, I break the news. Some international guests are bound to miss connections to England, Scotland, Wales, the USA, Spain, a dozen other countries. I expect to be booed off the stage.

But the three hundred souls just sit there, stunned. I haven’t a clue as to how they’re digesting the news. Then they start to applaud. They erupt into a rousing cheer. They’re realizing that Hurricane Danielle has marooned them eight miles out to sea on a little island filled with stories.

Early Monday morning, down on the pier, the captain decides it’s safe to sail.

After all the ritual good-byes, I can’t forget, as the African Bushman has it, that “A story is like the wind; it comes from a far-off quarter and we feel it.”

*****

 

  DOLPHIN MEMORY
              Broadcast in 2007  

walking cross-country

single file

along the cattle paths

through the belling heather

down, down to the sea, to the Bullig,

we happened upon a hidden dell

hummocky with cushions of grass,

riddled with rabbit warrens,

we alone above

the nesting ground of the wild-crying circling oystercatcher,

his brilliant orange beak as brightly piercing as his cries

 

my daughter, my wife, me, no soul else,

it seemed,

oh we lay back chatting

about, well, things, us

children's literature, conger eels,

the time we pitched our tent

in the Vendée, filled the VW bus with shells

 

when exploding from the sea below,

came a snort   of   snorts

 

we jumped into each other

 

there, hanging in the air,

the majesty of dolphin,

the static middle of a ballerina leap,

giving us a startling reminder of the deep

 

arced down into the sea, rose

into another leap,

danced across the harbour's mouth,

disappearing into distance

 

that snort that afternoon

hallowed the air,

 

hallows it still

 

 

 

AROUND THE FASTNET

Broadcast by Seascapes 3.8.06

 

When invited to tag along on a sea-watch around the Fastnet, I accepted without hesitation. Soon, on a sea of long slow swells, the boat circling the lighthouse, we were delighting in the labyrinthine remains of old stairways and living quarters. We imagined what life must have been like there for the rotations of lighthouse keepers from 1854 until 1989, when the lighthouse was automated -- but not demythologised.

 

Suddenly, a fellow sea-watcher, scanning the waters way south, spotted a dolphin leaping fully out of the water, right on cue. Off we sped, throttle open wide.

 

Shortly we entered dolphin country. Hundreds of them. To intensify the scene, flocks of seabirds milled about. Black-backs, Manx shearwaters, fulmars and kittiwakes. The occasional storm petrel. Now and then mackerel schooled. And everywhere about us, dolphins. Engine off, we could hear the playful dolphins breathing, blowing, snorting. Occasionally, as if a ballerina on a different kind of stage, one soared above the water.

 

After an hour, we were still enraptured: "Look what's right next to us; come to port, quick, here's a flock gambolling like spring lambs, look there, and there." Our leader, a marine biologist, stood nearby, feeding us scientific background information on what we watched.

 

Mysteriously, as if on command, the sea went flat calm, the swells disappeared, the dolphins too. We motored further south. Someone accidentally peered directly below our bow. Dolphins were playing in the bow wave. Half a dozen dolphins taking turns riding the water we pushed ahead. We stood on the bow deck looking down on dolphins four to five feet from us. We peered down sphinctered blow holes.

 

As we cruised close to Cape Clear's western cliffs on our return, someone recalled a story heard thirty years ago. A National Geographic photographer and his assistant visited the Aegean to investigate the ancient account of a dolphin saving the life of a boy. They went to a headland where dolphins were frequently seen, rented a rowboat, waited. A day or two later, half-a- mile off shore, they spotted the telltale fins breaking water. They put their backs into the oars. When amongst the dolphins, according to plan the assistant jumped overboard and thrashed about, crying for help. A dolphin came up to him, nosed him carefully to shore, the photographer in the boat frenziedly snapping and rowing away.

 

Afterwards, as the men were congratulating themselves, the photographer noticed that, in all the excitement, he had failed to remove the lens cap from his beloved but old camera. They wondered what to do and just then saw a herd -- perhaps the same herd -- of dolphins. Off they went. Your man jumped overboard, as before, and pretended he was drowning. But this time a dolphin came up to him and thumped him repeatedly, resoundingly, with his tail, knocking the stuffing out of him. The herd swam off.

 

Never cry wolf? Never cry dolphin.

 

 

Feudal Times

 

Above an abandoned boneyard lot

I sense flick of movement,

zero in on hawk

plummeting, five roughneck

hooded crows hard on his elusive tail.

They swoop, attack. He darts

crazily about, twisting sharp,

letting out sporadic squawk.

All fall wildly to treetop

tangle where he feints, ferocious,

and shalom-shazam old hawk’s

Houdini free, flies off high, alone,

floats over harbour, relaxed

as if he’s never known

anything else save soaring.

The thousand-year-old crows

flock with an air of death

to the highest branches

of the boneyard’s battered pines,

settle, wary sentries waiting.

 

From the island seawall where I sit

I can’t not wonder what triggered

such sunset skirmish: had hawk

plundered nest, feasted on unfledged crow,

or merely intruded that wingbeat too far

into crow-declared no-fly zone?

Or were the crows muscling in

on hawk country? I speculate, smiling grimly,

which Protestant, which Catholic; which Muslim,

which Jew? Could they truly remember

how and when this feud began, how—

Hawk glides back. Crows lift off,

spread out. In sudden flurry who’s

attacking whom I can’t say,

only that all emerge fired up from fray,

crows winging it east, hawk west.

 

And then from nowhere a solitary swallow

selects the high route after hawk, dives

abrupt as an insurance agent’s act of God.

Hawk twists, turns, evades,

yet sling-shot swallow strikes again.

Two hawk feathers twirl toward the sea.

 

As old sun drops that final inch, I catch myself

taking sides at last, rooting for

the little fellow, who, job done, flies off,

disappears behind a neighbouring hill.

 

 

Sister Skellig

Broadcast in 2005

 

Now I know why the monks did it,

hunkering down on that God

-unforsaken outpost of an Atlantic isle.

They didn’t simply keep

turning the other cheek

alive.

In howling wind I hear them sing,

we’re all we’ve got so on we go.

 

Now a beehive hut in a butterfly world

perched on the edge

of heritage

tells blow-in me not mainly of hardship

but of a wildly simplifying place, gull eggs,

pollack feathered from jagged ledge,

warmth the others in the hut,

a day-time look-out & blessed boulders

ready heavens above the single narrow path.

In howling wind I hear them sing,

we’re all we’ve got so on we go.

 

Here on Cape, here on this sister isle,

in a practically unrelated time,

this is the way it should be:

Force 12 & the roof poised & so what,

mail delivered straight

to the living room table when we’re not home,

keys left in car, a sea pink

swaying in a child’s eagle eye,

intimacy with rambunctious Mother Nature

as existential as full flame

under fish-filled frying pan.

When I need help, or a neighbour mine,

that’s it, off we go,

straight as the evening flight of a hooded crow.

In howling wind I hear them sing,

we’re all we’ve got so on we go.

 

 

1998 WAVES GOODBYE

Broadcast by Seascapes 21.10.04

 

On the morning of December 29th, 1998, aware of a mad roar, I ventured outside to scan Cape’s mile-long South Harbour. I failed to spot landmarks. It was as if I’d been transported, the scene alien and alarming.

Against the cliffs to the west, mountains of sea exploded, shot booming cataracts across cliff face, over scrub land and pasture. Giant white ghosts tripped across the island. In the middle of the harbour, waves rose forty feet, collided with each other, white plumes reaching skyward in sudden dazzles of sunlight that broke through black squalls. Then these monsters began breaking, cascading down, but, as they approached the shore, they’d rear up once more and crash over all before them.

Standing next to our kitchen garden, the Brussels sprouts blackening in the wind, I glanced north, down onto the inner protected portion of the same harbour, where small punts lie at anchor through summer months. The breakwater for the pier in front of the Old Telegraph House was as effective as a wicker fence at halting a stampeding bull. Waves curled the length of the hundred yard pier. A maelstrom of waterfall rushed along the pier’s surface, a truncated Niagara Falls alive and well on Cape.

The shingle before the priest’s house tumbled and turned in Pandemonium. As a wave charged up the beach, I saw an incongruous movement in the turmoil, discovered that part of the iron mast to a coaster that went aground here in 1940 was being levered up and down. In twelve years I hadn’t known this embedded hunk to budge one iota. Now it flopped about like a piece of flotsam before finding a deeper resting place.

Below the island school, walls of water rose high into the air, their lower bulk washing over the road, their upper bursts rushing on, rising over the Adventure Centre, swamping its chimney pots.

Hours later, night fallen, tide out, the waves crashing a hundred feet down the beach, a lone island lad called for me to take a look. “Sea otter or seal?” he asked.

Sure enough, heaving her way up the beach came a young seal. She leveraged herself onto the final bank, crossed the road, entered the priest’s yard.

Just then, a passing farmer, who’d spotted the seal in his headlamps, climbed out of his banger. As there’d been no ferry this day, he carried a brand-new yesterday’s paper. Thinking the seal should, for her own good, go back to the sea’s edge, he began to herd her as though one of his cows, swatting her debatable hindquarters. Sure enough, he drove her hissing and snarling back across the road. But then the pup suddenly bit his paper, snatched it out of his hands and tossed it into the wind where, in a fraction of a second, it opened and, unread, blew away.

I stood there, caught in a gale of laughter. A wild day had come to this, had become concentrated into this event. He too was laughing. And his daughter, who’d watched the scene from behind the wheel. One great helpless laugh together.

The seal stayed down on the beach, but safely back from the waves. And the next morning on my way to the ferry, the sea having abated and us with a mainland wedding to attend, I checked. Sure enough, the pup had disappeared back into a friendly sea.

 

 

Little Limpet Says

Broadcast in 2005

 

A scientist friend

assures me when

hurricane waves

hit shore,

they’ve the savage effects

of a wind of 900 miles

per hour.

You little limpets,

you mussels

and mermaid’s hair,

how do you hang in there

when the Druid’s oak

would vanish like smoke

and I would die

with the scare?

What, little limpet?

Wisdom’s hidden

in waves?

To hunker down’s

to withstand,

to stand up’s

to be crowbait, you say?

Little limpet, please

let me cling

to the shore

of your heart

when the next hurricane hits.

 

 

The Sea Does Talk
  Broadcast in 2005

 

Out for a walk I sprained

the left side of my brain,

fell into a hole as black

as home to archetypal rat,

 

but when the wind howled down at me

I climbed back up and hugged a tree

and soon felt safe, well enough to walk

into a world where the sea does talk

 

of how to skim the tide and ride the wave,

be other than a nine-to-five galley-slave.

 

 

Feathering Mackerel

Broadcast in 2005

 

Feathering mackerel half a mile east

of the Fastnet Rock, I glance

to starboard where, below

billowing cumulus and framed

between the Lighthouse and our punt,

sails such sudden purity of yacht

seascape turns into painting, me into peace,

and a Galway hooker into a red-sailed hint

of the worth of being on board.

 

****

 

PS And should you like to hear me read some of these, visit Seascapes’ website. Just Google “Seascapes”, “Island Notebook” and you should arrive there.

 

 


E-Mail: chuck@chuckkruger.net


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